Justice must not only target the state's enemies

Few people are celebrating Julius Malema's trial as a turning point in the fight against corruption because it is anything but. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Few people are celebrating Julius Malema's trial as a turning point in the fight against corruption because it is anything but. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

For South Africans who love this country, there is nothing that reassures us that we have systems and institutions that work more than seeing a high-profile politician with unexplained riches standing in the dock in court, accounting for his actions.

This is because the culture of corruption has become endemic, and because arresting and prosecuting prominent people who are accused of corruption should send the message that there is a determination to clamp down on this debilitating disease – and that those who meddle in it will pay the price. It is not about deriving pleasure from watching an ANC politician fry, or because we love it when the country gets a bad international image, as some ANC activists often suggest.

From 1994 onwards, the ANC itself has consistently highlighted the battle against corruption as a key one in establishing good governance and enhancing service delivery.

So when we saw both an MEC (Mike Mabuyakhulu) and the speaker of the provincial legislature in KwaZulu-Natal (Peggy Nkonyeni) – the "Amigos" – facing the music, it sent a message that the pussyfooting was over, that a whole new powerful battlefront had been opened against this enemy, and that the corruption fight would now be taken to the highest echelons – that there would be no holy cows.

The celebrations were of course premature and cut short as, once again, politics triumphed over justice and clean governance. The National Prosecuting Authority withdrew the charges.
Why were they at least not prosecuted, so that there could be an  outcome, even if it was an acquittal?

The dropping of charges by an NPA that has become a controversial story in itself, rather than just an instrument of prosecution, left a bitter taste in the mouth. As did former NPA head Mokotedi Mpshe plagiarising a ruling from Hong Kong  to justify why he was dropping fraud and corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, then on his way to the presidency of the country.

After years of dragging the man's name through the mud, why such an anticlimax? Zuma himself insisted it was all a political charade, and if he is left unprosecuted that is exactly what it looks like.

More recently, there have been rumours that ANC Northern Cape chairperson John Block, who is accused of fraud and corruption with the "Amigos", might get off the hook – mainly as a result of political manoeuvres.

Likewise, I am convinced that the charging of expelled ANC Youth League president Julius Malema will be tainted by allegations of political interference. He will cry political conspiracy and we will dismiss it because it's him.

An enemy of many in the ruling party, of the opposition, AfriForum, the media and all those whom he has insulted over the years, Malema will find them baying for his blood so that, once he is off the stage, we can all carry on and have a rational political discourse. But I am not about to celebrate this trial as a turning point in the fight against corruption, because it is anything but.

If it is significant in any way, it is because it represents the moment when the state brought its might to bear to remind a "public nuisance" that he cannot take on the entirety of government and win. He might well have a strong case to answer, but so did Zuma, Nkonyeni and Mabuyakhulu.

As I said about his disciplinary action, the charges that were brought against him could easily have been used against so many other ANC leaders, and the same applies here. He may well be found guilty of some serious charges and it is appropriate that he takes responsibility for his actions. We have long wanted to know how a person who earns R50 000 a month could afford a R16-million house and the attendant luxurious lifestyle. The court will help to clear that up. Because there is seemingly a legal basis, the case against Malema should continue, and let's hope the NPA is not prodded by a different faction to discontinue the case.

But we must not become a banana republic where the state can throw all its resources into exposing a member of society it identifies as an enemy of the state. The rest of us should tremble at this prospect. I am still chilled to the bone that, in this democracy, Cabinet members in security portfolios sat with their top bureaucrats to thrash out an answer to the question: What do we do about this Malema?

It's a story that was run and confirmed by City Press last week, with the only point of dispute being the matter of who started the conversation between the politicians and the officials. What will happen the day they have that conversation about Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ben Turok or Helen Zille, and that discussion is immediately followed by charges and summonses from the police, the Hawks, the South African Revenue Service, and others? To para­phrase a mantra: the test for the rule of law is best measured when applied to bad boys like Malema.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane

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